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Journal of the History of Ideas 64.4 (2003) 619-637

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Overcoming Gnosticism:
Hans Jonas, Hans Blumenberg, and the Legitimacy of the Natural World

Benjamin Lazier
University of Chicago

In 1984, about a decade before his own murder, the Romanian scholar of religion Ioan Culianu complained of a more widespread, if decidedly less grisly form of assault. 1 The gnostics, he declared in a moment of high jocularity, had "taken hold of the whole world, and we were not aware of it. It is a mixed feeling of anxiety and admiration, since I cannot refrain myself from thinking that these alien body-snatchers have done a remarkable job indeed." 2

Though offered in jest, Culianu's designation "alien body-snatchers" quite accurately sums up what has remained since 1934 the leading view of gnosticism as a delimited, identifiable phenomenon. In that year appeared the first monumental volume of Gnosis und spätantiker Geist (Gnosis and the Spirit of Late Antiquity) composed by the young Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas as a dissertation under Martin Heidegger and the theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Over the next sixty years Jonas returned again and again to the movement as he defined it. Above all, gnosticism had as its guiding principle the notion of das Fremde. The term includes in its linguistic domain not only "the alien," by which it is most usually translated, but its cognates as well: the strange, the foreign, the other, the unknown, the uncanny, and the like. This sense of alienation is wildly overdetermined in gnostic theology: man is alienated from himself, from a fully transcendent God, and most powerfully from the material, [End Page 619] sensuous universe in which he lives, created as it was by an evil, malicious demiurge. Such anti-cosmism could license both ascetic retreat from the world as well as an antinomian descent into the worldly abyss, with the intent to defeat it from within. The locution "body-snatcher" now acquires relevance, for gnostic theology made impossible any positive appraisal of the physical body, or of the physical world at all for that matter. As the political philosopher Leo Strauss put it in a letter to Jonas, gnosticism may well have been the most radical rebellion in Western history against the Greek notion of physis.

In stylized terms Jonas's philosophical career represents what I would like to call gnosticism's "third overcoming." Such terms signal an allegiance to the work of the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg. But they signal a departure as well. In Legitimität der Neuzeit (Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 1966), Blumenberg undertook what must count among the most ambitious revisions of Western intellectual history ever ventured. Against a rash of attacks on the modern age as an ill-concealed, secularized derivative of an earlier Christian era, he stepped up in its defense. He linked the emergence of the modern age—defined preeminently by man's need for self-assertion, to act in the world—to a "second overcoming" of gnosticism at the end of the Middle Ages. The gnostic spirit he found revived by the nominalism and theological voluntarism of late-medieval scholastic theology, a loose confluence of thought centripetally bound by the black hole of the deus absconditus or hidden god. Whereas gnosticism's first overcoming was Augustine's work and but a partial success, its second, and for Blumenberg "final" overcoming was the work of an ethos of human self-assertion best instantiated by the scientific program of Francis Bacon.

To argue for its third overcoming in the late 1920s and '30s is therefore to take leave of Blumenberg's account, if also to extend it. The condition for the possibility of this argument, of course, is that gnosticism had in fact returned. Gnosticism, or at the very least a host of phenomena going by the name and generally understood as such, did indeed return, and with a vengeance—on the occult scene, in philosophy, in theology of all persuasions, even in natural-scientific discourse. This period also witnessed the return of the...


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